The following article first appeared in the Phoenix Critics Circle (PCC) online website. Reprinted with permission. Sections have been updated to reflect some changes. To find out more about the PCC, its members, and various other perspectives on film, CLICK HERE
There’s something to keep in mind when looking back on the history of the Hollywood studio and its relationship with the Christmas movie. Hollywood never liked them. That’s not to say that those who run the studios were seasonal hating Scrooges. Really, who doesn’t like a good Christmas movie when you’re in the mood? It’s just that as a business, the studios never thought there was an audience big enough to warrant regular, yearly releases. Strange but true.
Look closely at the original poster 20th Century Fox used to promote its 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. It shows Maureen O’Hara and her leading man, John Payne, dominating the foreground while Edmund Gwenn’s Santa is relegated to the back, the far back. In fact, you can hardly make him out. Studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck wanted his seasonal film released in May. His argument was that more people went to the theatres in the summer, not the winter, and he was right. The numbers were proof positive. As a result, all indications of Christmas were immediately removed from the poster. Miracle on 34th Street was considered a summer movie; the Christmas theme in the promotional hype was rarely mentioned.
If you look at the broad yuletide spectrum of Hollywood and the big screen Christmas movie, you’ll see a pattern. There’s a handful of classics from the forties and fifties, but it’s for the smallest of hands. You know the films. They’re shown every year on syndicated TV lead by the perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life, but here’s something interesting. On its initial release, the Frank Capra directed classic struggled to find an audience. Reviews were less than stellar. One industry insider even reports that in 1947 the FBI became interested when it was asserted that the film was really Communist propaganda; it made the banker, Mr. Potter, the villain of the story.
Here’s a fast track through the decades. During the sixties, you can look as much as you want, but in truth, there’s no real Hollywood seasonal movie interest to be found; the studios basically gave up the ghost of Christmas to TV where comedy specials, variety shows, Rudolph and A Charlie Brown Christmas reigned. Even during the seventies, when it came to holiday entertainment if it was a movie you were watching it was generally designed for the small screen, not the big. But there was a definite breakthrough during the eighties. (We’ll get to that in more detail in just a moment). The nineties brought a steady stream of big-screen holiday features to lure audiences away from the TV, even if, generally speaking, quality usually remained absent. Then came the new millennium and Hollywood finally seemed to get a handle.
DOES A CHRISTMAS SETTING MEAN IT’S A CHRISTMAS MOVIE?
Before we get to the specifics and a few recommendations, what would you say is the rule that constitutes a film to be a genuine Christmas Movie? Just because its setting is Christmas doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a seasonal movie. We all know that Die Hard takes place at Christmas, but be honest, when you first came out of the theatre during its original run in July 1988, did you really walk back to the car with the thought of sugar plums dancing in your head? If the film hadn’t closed with Vaughn Monroe singing Let it Snow! over the end credits – it was meant to be satirical: snow, July, Los Angeles – you’d have forgotten there was ever a Christmas tree in the Nakatomi building in the first place. Now, I’m aware, since the new millennium, a whole new generation of moviegoers that weren’t around when the film first opened and don’t quite get irony have declared Die Hard a Christmas movie, and, yes, it’s a great film. But it’s not a great Christmas film, it’s a great action film. Look at the original poster. Not a tree, a piece of tinsel, or a wreath in sight. Even the marketing department never considered it seasonal. But don’t take my word for it, ask director John McTiernan. He’s on record as saying it’s not a Christmas movie, and he made the film.
And, please, don’t call Brazil a Christmas movie, either. We all know there are Christmas decorations in the offices, but, seriously, what kind of Grinch would gather the family around a cozy TV screen on Christmas Eve with everyone full of good cheer and hungry for more and then pop Brazil into the DVD player?
Here are the rules, and they’re simple. 1) Taking place at Christmas is certainly important, granted, but not always required. After all, guess what time of year Christmas in July took place. The main aspect is 2) it has to be Christmas themed. The 1970 musical Scrooge naturally qualifies, so does Disney’s One Magic Christmas. Even the obscure and hard to find Holiday in Handcuffs qualifies, though anyone who considers themselves a fan of film and would intentionally subject themselves to that particular movie has to be smoking something stronger than just a seasonal cigar.
Accepting that Christmas movie audiences are first and foremost looking to be entertained and couldn’t care less about Oscar material, once you’ve got White Christmas and those other above-mentioned earlier classics out of your system, the 1970 musical Scrooge directed by Ronald Neame is a great beginning. If you look at everything seasonal released during the seventies, this musical version of A Christmas Carol is the only big screen production that celebrated the season in the way we would want most Christmas themed movies to be. Bright, brash, tuneful and – excuse me while I wipe something from the corner of my eye – a total holiday joy. The film was made hot on the success of that other big-screen Charles Dickens musical, Oliver! In fact, without Oliver! there might never have been a Scrooge. It was filmed on many of the sound stages used in the ’68 musical and many of those same sets were dusted and brought out of storage.
A CHRISTMAS STORY
Hard to believe, but it was as recent as the eighties when Hollywood’s attitude to the Christmas movie changed. It didn’t necessarily change its low output, but it proved one thing: Despite a studio belief that no one would go to see a Christmas movie on the big screen at holiday time, the eighties saw a turnaround, and it was all because of a collection of short stories written for Playboy by satirist Jean Shepherd called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. Director Bob Clark had scored such a surprising financial success with his teen-sex comedy Porky’s that the studio gave him the go-ahead to film A Christmas Story. The truth is, without Porky’s there would never have been A Christmas Story. The story of Ralphie and his desire for a Daisy Air Rifle has become a genuine, modern day, American classic whose popularity shows no signs of diminishing.
A Christmas Story was first released in November just before Thanksgiving 1983 and had all but disappeared from theaters before Christmas arrived. Such was the unexpected popularity of the film that complaints were sent to both the studio and theater owners for pulling the film out of circuit too early. Some theaters relented and showed the film on select screens until the following year. And it was because of that turn of events that the Hollywood approach to Christmas film distribution changed. The voice of the narrator, which is supposed to be Ralphie as a grown man, is actually the author himself, Jean Shepherd. Shepherd can also be seen in the film. Look for a brief cameo in the department store scene where an irate man tells Ralphie he needs to get to the back of the line if he wants to see Santa. That’s Shepherd. Plus, for the benefit of trivia buffs, the woman standing next to him is his real-life wife, Leigh Brown.
Because audiences suddenly flocked to A Christmas Story and even demanded it return to theatres once distributors pulled it off screens, other Christmas themed films slowly emerged but with more regularity. It would take another decade for the genre to get into full, theatrical swing, but the eighties continued to produce several yuletide-themed movies that are still popular today. If it wasn’t for A Christmas Story, Hollywood may never have given the green light to Bill Murray in Scrooged or the low-budget 1989 family favorite, Prancer.
THE DAWN OF THE QUALITY CHRISTMAS MOVIE
The landscape for Christmas movies looked completely different in the nineties than all previous decades. Suddenly, Christmas became box-office. Like an avalanche of seasonal snow, Christmas movies became an expected part of those November/December releases. That didn’t necessarily raise the quality quota. In fact, most were pretty bad. Titles like Santa with Muscles didn’t help. And even though that last one did not star bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, he did put some muscle behind his own nineties Christmas comedy, Jingle All the Way, which didn’t really help, either. But there was Home Alone and Home Alone 2 which dominated the box-office on their subsequent nineties release dates.
Now, here’s the good news as we move forward. Not only did leaving the twentieth century on New Year’s Eve mean fireworks, parties and a rise in designated drivers, it also must have done something to the suits in Hollywood. Quality finally came to Christmas movies. Let’s be honest, trying to find an all-around, satisfyingly good Christmas themed movie during most of the previous decades was as unlikely as discovering a Macy’s gift card in that final demand from Scrooge & Marley. But from 2000 going-forward, Christmas movie prayers were answered.
The problem now when looking for films to recommend is not what to put on a movie list but what to leave off. There are so many we could be talking about them from now until, well, Christmas. For example, who wouldn’t want to recommend the 2004 animated feature, The Polar Express? True, the early technique of Performance Capture animation made most of the human characters appear as though they were talking cabbage patch dolls, but the film’s scenery looked spectacular.
However, not everything with a seasonal flair released after 2000 was first class. There were still all of those made for TV movies where any creativity began and ended with a catchy title, such as Santa Paws, Holidaze or Karoll’s Christmas. Never seen them, never will. For all I know they could be perfectly decent, but I’d be suspicious of a 2007 movie called What Would Jesus Buy? Not exactly sure what the producers might be thinking of, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say, hmm, maybe socks.
Bad Santa is definitely not for the family, but it still qualifies as a Christmas movie. By the way, before we go any furhter, let’s not talk about the dreadful sequel; no one else does. Both Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray were considered for the part of Santa but both had to pull out due to other commitments. It became Billy Bob Thornton’s role and he’s great in it. The actor is even on record as saying that if he could go back in time and re-live favorite moments of his life, there are two chapters that stand out. Making Bad Santa would be one of them. He also said that he was flat out drunk during most of the film and staggered around the set intoxicated. (And there we were thinking he was doing some of his best method acting). For the record, the other favorite chapter in his life was when he worked for the Arkansas Highway Department. That’s not a joke, by the way. That’s what he said.
Finally, the film that appears to have captured the affection of Christmas movie lovers with no sign of its popularity diminishing is the ensemble comedy to end all ensemble comedies. Released in the United States on 14th November 2003, Love Actually is a romantic comedy set in London at Christmas and revolves around not one but several different intertwining stories performed by an ensemble of first-rate character actors, including Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightly, and Hugh Grant. For the record, the word ‘actually’ is spoken at least twenty-two times by various characters throughout the film.
You’ll notice at the beginning and end of the film the setting is London’s Heathrow Airport where several passengers who have just disembarked from their various flights are met by their families and loved ones. These were all real people acting naturally, their hugs and embraces caught on film. Writer Richard Curtis, who was also given directing duties, sent a team of cameramen to the airport and had them remain there for a week filming anything that looked appropriate to the theme of the story. Everyone who was caught by the camera was then asked if it was possible to use the footage for the movie.
Perhaps one of the most amusing behind-the-scenes stories is that of English actor Kris Marshall. Marshall played the part of a young Brit called Colin, and Colin is convinced that the only way he can meet women who’ll appreciate him is if he flies to America for Christmas, which is exactly what he does. No sooner has he stepped off the plane and collected his suitcase full of condoms from the luggage carousel when he meets three young American women who are immediately attracted to his London accent. They take him back to their apartment. Yes, Christmas wishes, even Colin’s, can come true. The story goes that Marshall had such a great time filming the moment when the girls undress him – a scene that required twenty-one takes until the actors got it right – that he actually gave back his pay-check for the day stating that because he had such a great time rehearsing the scene, he was willing to do it for free. Personally, I’m thinking that in reality that might be one of those movie urban legends that grew with the telling. After all, seriously, who really gives their money back just because they had a good time at work? But then again, isn’t Christmas all about wanting to believe? Let’s enjoy the story and just go with it.
Those who have seen Love Actually talk of how the movie made them fall in love all over again; such is the power of this very funny and occasionally touching Christmas comedy. Though be warned. If you have yet to see it and you’re thinking of a rental to help you get into the Christmas spirit, there’s one thing to keep mind; it’s adult in nature and earns its R rating. By all means enjoy, you’ll have a great time, but keep the kids out of the room.
More than any other genre, ultimately the Christmas movie is something personal. Like the same ol’ decorations your parents used to put up each year, it doesn’t matter if they’re tasteful or not, they’re what makes you feel warm and cozy in winter and represent what the season means to you. Whether you have yet to find your favorite, maybe some of the films mentioned here will add to whatever brings you your own feelings of comfort and joy.
So, Merry Christmas, happy new year, and here’s the really great thing about DVDs, Blu-Rays, rentals or downloads: Think about it, you don’t really have to wait until December to see them.